"These are historic figures that will never be forgotten," Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley Jr. said. "They gave their lives unflinchingly to protect the lives of others."
The names, ages and ranks of the nine fallen firefighters – as well as their years of service with the fire department – are:
- William “Billy” Hutchinson, 48, captain (30 years with the department)
- Mike Benke, 49, captain (29 years)
- Louis Mulkey, 34, captain (11.5 years)
- Mark Kelsey, 40, engineer (12.5 years)
- Bradford “Brad” Baity, 37, engineer (9 years)
- Michael French, 27, assistant engineer (1.5 years)
- James “Earl” Drayton, 56, firefighter (32 years)
- Brandon Thompson, 27, firefighter (4 years)
- Melven Champaign, 46, firefighter (2 years)
"We've lost over 100 years of dedicated service," Charleston Fire Chief Rusty Thomas said. "I lost nine of my best friends. We have a long road ahead of us, but we're going to stand tall. We will never forget these nine firefighters who lost their lives ... doing what they love to do – fight fires."
Riley declined to comment on the cause of the blaze until more details become available.
An "Unimaginable" Tragedy
Riley said that he has received calls of condolences and offers of help from all over the country.
"The brave acts of these nine men have touched the lives of everyone," Riley said. "When others run away from a fire to escape it, firefighters are the ones who run into the danger to try to save lives and property. It is their job."
In a statement, President Bush called the fallen firefighters "true heroes."
“Their unwavering commitment to their neighbors and to the city of Charleston is an inspiration to all Americans,” Bush said.
Chief Jim Harmes, president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, called the tragedy “unimaginable.”
“It is difficult to find the words to adequately express our sympathies to the families,” Harmes said. “Even as we feel numb at this time, we recognize that when our firefighters are at work, things can change so quickly and dramatically that the unexpected can occur, as it did in this case.”
The City of Charleston Fire Department is a Class 1 rated department with 19 fire companies located throughout the Charleston area. The department has 237 fire personnel, including captains, fire engineers and firefighters as well as eight dispatchers and a departmental secretary.
89 Firefighters Died in 2006
In the past three decades in the United States, 1978 was the deadliest year for on-duty firefighters, claiming the lives of 173 firefighters. Firefighter fatalities generally have trended downward since then.
In 2006, a total of 89 firefighters died in the line of duty, up from 87 fatalities in 2005.
According to NFPA statistics, 340 firefighters died on Sept. 11 at the World Trade Center complex. Prior to Sept. 11, the deadliest firefighter disaster was the South Canyon wildland fire in Glenwood Springs, Colo., in which 14 firefighters perished.
On Oct. 26, 2006, the Esperanza wildland fire in Perris, Calif., claimed the lives of five firefighters.